How 15 Iconic American Beers Got Their Names

The United States got serious about beer in the 1800s, when many breweries introduced American lager-style beers to the masses. More than a hundred years later, some of these beers remain iconic, while others—like many newer, American craft beers—have been working on achieving that status. Here are the stories behind how 15 beers that define the U.S. beer scene got their names.

1. BUDWEISER

Today, Anheuser-Busch InBev is the largest brewery in the world, but it commenced with humbler beginnings. Adolphus Busch and his father-in-law, Eberhard Anheuser, ran the St. Louis brewery in the mid-1800s. Busch wanted to develop a light lager to contrast the rampant American dark beers. His friend Carl Conrad, a wine and liquor importer, had traveled to Budweis in what is now the Czech Republic and had tasted an incredible beer in a monastery there. Conrad took the idea back to St. Louis, and he and Busch decided on the name "Budweiser." In 1982, Bud Light (which is currently the best-selling beer in America) was introduced to the market.

2. SAM ADAMS BOSTON LAGER

Labels featuring a man holding a beer have been gracing barrels of brew for centuries, but its been synonymous in the States with a top crafty lager since 1984. Using his own money—and a family recipe for Louis Koch Lager that he found in an attic—Jim Koch founded Boston Beer Company in 1984. He named the dry-hopped lager after 18th-century Samuel Adams, who was a Founding Father, a governor of Massachusetts, a part of the American Revolution, and a brewer. (Like Alexander Hamilton, his varied resume deserves a musical.) According to a 2015 Brewer’s Association list, Boston Beer Co.’s the second best-selling craft brewery in the nation (next to Yuengling), and the fifth overall best-selling brewery.

3. MILLER LITE

We have a biochemist to thank for the advent of light beer. In 1967, Joseph L. Owades worked for Rheingold Brewery and discovered an enzyme that digested all of the starch, resulting in a beer label called Gablinger’s Diet Beer. Meister Brau of Chicago first manufactured the light beer until Miller Brewing bought Gablinger’s. In 1975 they changed the name to Miller Lite, and it became the first nationally distributed reduced-calorie beer.

4. COORS BANQUET

Adolph Coors liked the mountain waters of Colorado, so he established Coors there in 1873. Back in the late 1800s, miners in Golden, Colorado, worked hard every day and would gather after work and drink Coors beer in a celebratory banquet setting. In 1937, out of respect for those miners, the name Coors Banquet became official. Decades later, in 1981 the beer started national distribution. Besides the innovative stubby Banquet beers, Coors also became the forerunner of almost frozen cold-lagered beers (Coors Light), and they were one of the first breweries to delve into recycling, with the launch of their all-aluminum cans in 1959.

5. PBR

The Best family emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee and started Best and Company in 1844. Jacob Best Sr.’s daughter married Frederick Pabst, and in 1889, Pabst named the brewery after himself. They purchased about a million feet of silk ribbon, and workers hand-tied the ribbons around every bottle of their Best Select beer. At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the beer won a blue ribbon award, and Best Select’s name switched to Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1898. Today, the brand's mostly known as a hipster beer because of its cheap price.

6. ARROGANT BASTARD

This year, Escondido, California's Stone Brewing Company turns 20 years old, and one of their first beers, Arrogant Bastard, turns 19. Described as an “aggressive beer,” the strong ale set the standard for Stone’s West Coast-inflected IPAs and other hoppy beers. Founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner have turned the brewery with the scowling, horned gargoyle logo into the ninth largest craft brewery in the U.S. "It told me what its name was," Koch told Thrillist about the beer’s genesis. "We did not create it. I did not name it. It was already there. We were just the first lowly mortals to have stumbled upon it. Steve was the first to learn how to brew the beer that already was, and I was the first to realize what its name already was."

7. BLUE MOON BELGIAN WHITE

The Belgian Wit (meaning white, or wheat) beer that’s served with an orange wedge derived from baseball. In 1995, Keith Villa, who is one of only a few Americans with a Ph.D. in brewing, began brewing beer inside Denver’s Coors Field stadium. Called the Sandlot, it was the first brewery inside of a Major League stadium. Taking his experiences from Brussels (where he earned his doctorate), Villa brewed a Belgian beer called a Bellyslide, made with Valencia orange peels and coriander. The Coors-owned beer was in such high-demand that they needed a better name than Bellyslide. "So one day, when a bunch of us were tasting beers, our admin called out, 'You know, a beer that tastes this good comes around only once in a blue moon,'" their story reads. "And with that phrase ringing in our ears, the Blue Moon Brewing Company was born."

8. OLD STYLE

Like so many other breweries on the list, the brewery’s founder moved from Germany to the Midwest. While living in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Gottlieb Heileman founded Golden Leaf Lager in the 1890s. Post-Prohibition, the company’s brewmaster came up with a strong brew for the company’s picnic and renamed the beer Old Style Lager Special Export. Old Style trickled into the Chicago market, and is noted for once sponsoring the Chicago Cubs (“Chicago’s beer”), and for its German brewing method called krausening—meaning to double ferment the beer.

9. SCHLITZ

August Krug was a homebrewer in 1849 and hired the recently emigrated, 20-year-old Joseph Schlitz to do his bookkeeping. Sensing an opportunity of a lifetime, Schlitz took over the brewery in 1856, when Krug died. Akin to Pabst, Schlitz renamed the company after himself. By 1902, Schlitz became the largest brewery in the world in crafting their American lager beer. In 1911, Schlitz was the first brewer to create the brown bottle design (to avoid spoiling), and decades later in 1956, they introduced the “tall boy” 16-ounce can, something that’s still prevalent in bars and stores today.

10. SIERRA NEVADA PALE ALE

Homebrewer Ken Grossman established the Chico, California, brewery in 1979 and named it for the nearby mountains where he loved to hike. A year later he started brewing the popular pale ale, using whole cone Cascade hops. According to the company’s website, Grossman dumped 10 batches of the ale before getting it right. The Pale Ale set the tone for today’s craft beer explosion, and more than 30 years later, Sierra’s one of the top three best-selling craft breweries in the U.S.

11. STROH’S

A German man named Bernhard Stroh settled down in Detroit in 1848, and started brewing pilsners like he had in his homeland. Stroh had originally named the brewery Lion’s Head Brewery, but his son, Bernhard Jr., changed the name to B. Stroh’s Brewing Company after Stroh’s death in 1902. Their lager formula won a blue ribbon at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and nearly a century later, in 1999, another ribbon-centric beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon, purchased the brewery.

12. FAT TIRE AMBER ALE

Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan formed the Fort Collins, Colorado, brewery in 1991, but started brewing their flagship beer, the Belgian-flavored Fat Tire, a couple of years beforehand in a basement. The amber ale got its name from a European trip Lebesch took on a bicycle, or a “fat tire,” and the bike ended up being used as the company’s logo.

13. MICHELOB

In 1896, Adolphus Busch named his new lager after the then-Kingdom of Bohemia (now Czech Republic) town of Michalovice. Michelob Light didn’t show up until decades later, in 1978, and the carb-reduced Michelob Ultra was invented in 2002.

14. COLT 45

Many people associate the malt liquor—a lager with a sweeter flavor—with longtime spokesman Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). But when it was first created in 1963, the National Brewing Company named the beer after Baltimore Colts running back Jerry Hill, who played for the football team from 1961 to 1970, with the jersey number 45. 

15. YUENGLING TRADITIONAL LAGER

David G. Yuengling immigrated to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, from Germany and established the company in 1829 as Eagle Brewery. When David’s son Frederick joined the team in 1873, the name changed to D.G. Yuengling and Son. The family didn’t gain popularity with their beers until 1933, when they introduced Winner Beer, in tandem with the repeal of Prohibition. Today, the beer’s so well-known in Philadelphia that when you’re at a bar and want a Yuengling, all you have to say is “lager” and the bartender will know what you mean.

How Prohibition Paved the Way for a Ku Klux Klan Resurgence in the 1920s

Topical Press Agency, Getty Images
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

The motivation behind ratifying the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919 was clear: Alcohol was a corruptive, corrosive lubricant, and America would be better off without it.

On the 100th anniversary of this societal shift, it’s worth noting that Prohibition had another, lesser-known consequence: It opened the door for hate groups to gain a greater foothold in America.

Making the sale and transportation of alcohol illegal was supposed to contribute to a strengthened moral fiber in the 1920s. But the sentiment behind it had roots in racism. "The Klan felt immigrants and anyone not of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) heritage was the underlying cause of America’s problems," according to Tennessee's Museum Center at 5ive Points. They argued that immigrants from Europe were importing their drinking habits and contributing to a relaxed social standard that organizations like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League dubbed a “saloon culture.” Before long, they reasoned, the U.S. would be overrun by Catholic foreigners contributing to societal decay. Bootleggers couldn’t be arrested fast enough.

That’s where the Ku Klux Klan stepped in. The organization was originally founded in 1866 to resist the Reconstruction period of a post-Civil War America. When their sentiments were drowned out by support for civil change, their numbers dwindled before being revived in the 20th century. As part of a sort of recruitment strategy, the Klan began mixing their message of discrimination against minorities with support for Prohibition. Advocacy for clean living was intermingled with the idea that immigrants were responsible for the hedonism associated with alcohol and so many of America's other wrongs.

In communities around the country, Klan representatives succeeded in creating concern by insisting that Catholics, Jewish community members, African-Americans, Hispanic people, and immigrants were feeding the continued disregard for the law. Rather than blanket towns with unfiltered hate speech, they convinced residents that minorities were responsible for illegal alcohol trafficking, speakeasies, and flagrant disobedience of the ban.

The Klan then took it a step further, convincing Prohibition supporters that they could pick up the slack left by overworked police who were struggling to stop bootleggers from flourishing. Evangelical Americans, stirred by fear over the Klan’s depiction of a bad element taking over the country, began to support their cause. If people were in favor of Prohibition, then it only made sense to be anti-immigration, too. The Klan even found federal support for its ambitions, supplying foot soldiers in attacks on Italian alcohol barons in Herrin, Illinois in 1923. Violence and planted evidence were common complaints among those targeted.

Any raids the Klan performed on bootleggers were rarely about seizing alcohol—and if they did, they typically drank it themselves. Instead, it was an excuse to terrorize Catholic neighborhoods in a display of power. Such groups, the Klan argued, were violating Prohibition and had to be stopped. As a result, Klan factions—including some for women and children—sprung up across the country. If supporters weren’t inherently racist, then they could get behind the blanket message to enforce the law.

Either way, Klan numbers grew, with an estimated 2 to 5 million members pledging their commitment to the cause between 1920 and 1925. The erupting violence during raids eroded those numbers in some communities, as people finally caught on that harassment of immigrants—not the betterment of America—was the Klan's primary goal.

The Klan’s ability to piggyback on Prohibition was lost in 1933, when the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment. The group wouldn’t be seen as a formidable force again until the rise of the civil rights movement. But for a good portion of the 1920s, they were able to grow in strength and numbers based on the promise of moral upkeep. The “noble experiment” of banning alcohol, which was intended to curb salacious behavior, would forever be associated with the malevolent intentions of the Klan.

Craft Beer is the Latest Casualty of the Government Shutdown

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nearly three weeks in, the butting of heads in Washington has nullified a number of federal operations. National parks have fallen into disarray; Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees are calling in sick rather than show up to airports to work without pay. Now the government shutdown has claimed yet another casualty: craft beer.

According to Business Insider, the federal approval process for new beers has been halted as a result of the impasse over the contested funding for border security. Labels and recipes for new beers, wines, and other alcoholic beverages are reviewed by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which has closed during the shutdown. Without the bureau's stamp of approval, new and seasonal varieties of craft beers cannot be distributed or sold across state lines.

While this is not an issue for larger, mass-market offerings like Budweiser, smaller breweries that rely on an assortment of new flavors are feeling the impact. Interboro Spirits and Ales of Brooklyn releases new beers weekly; If the shutdown continues, their February sales will suffer, eating into their revenues.

But even an immediate resolution to the situation is no guarantee breweries will rebound. Because the bureau is still accepting applications for labels and even new brewery locations requiring certification, breweries will have to wait for the backlog to be cleared before being given approval to resume normal operations. Come summer, that could mean fewer craft beer options and reduced profits for small businesses that depend on a rotating selection of beverages to drive interest and fuel gatherings.

Until the shutdown is resolved, it appears a lot of craft beer will be sitting in inventory, with brewers hoping the political head-butting won’t break any records. The longest government freeze in history came in 1995, when Republicans advanced a budget met with resistance by President Bill Clinton. That lasted 21 days. Clinton later had a craft beer named in his honor, Exile Chill Clinton, which was distributed in Des Moines, Iowa. The brew was infused with 750 hemp seeds.

[h/t Business Insider]

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